DIAVATA MIGRANT CAMP, Greece — As Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras puts it, Greece is now “a warehouse of souls.”
In the freshly shoveled earth, lines of white tents stand in rows, the bunks inside filling up as fast as the army can build them. This camp in the north — one of more than a dozen being rapidly deployed to house a logjam of stranded migrants — is only days old. But flies already buzz around trash heaps. Food lines — for sandwiches on moldy bread — stretch around corners. Breezes bring stenches of sweat and sewage. Babies cry, their mothers soothing them in Farsi, Dari and Arabic.
“Sir, please, can you help me?” a soft-spoken 29-year-old named Mohammad Yousof asks a foreign journalist in excellent English, his voice breaking. An Afghan economics professor, he is running, he says, from the Taliban. “I should not be in this camp. I don’t belong here. I was important. A VIP. I need help. Please. Can you please ask someone to let me cross?”
But in migrant-inundated Europe, the door to sanctuary is closing.
After a year and a half of massive human waves entering Europe from the war-torn Middle East and beyond, the nations lining a 1,000-mile road to hope — Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia — have stopped waving through the migrants aiming for the continent’s core. Some Syrians and Iraqis are still slowly crossing. But nearly everyone else — including thousands of Afghans and the many Syrians without rock-solid paperwork — is stuck in bankrupt Greece, a country that can barely afford to feed itself.
Late Friday, Donald Tusk, the European Council president, issued a blunt statement demanding an end to mass migration into Europe over land. He said the bloc’s members, at a key meeting with Turkey on Monday, should endorse the recent moves by Balkan countries to block migrants.
“We will close the Western Balkans route, which was the main entry point for migrants,” he said. Earlier in the week, he issued an even starker warning to economic migrants: “Do not come to Europe.”
To keep the migrants from their doorsteps, the other nations of the European Union are racing to reach a deal with Turkey to keep asylum seekers there. They are also promising hundreds of millions of euros to Greece, to effectively turn the bloc’s weakest member into the continent’s refugee camp.
To get out, desperate migrants are again turning to criminal smugglers. And tensions are rising at bottleneck points in the north.
But many other stranded migrants are suddenly confronting a different kind of journey — navigating four stages of grief for new lives that may never be lived: Shock. Denial. Anger. Acceptance.
The worst, Nasrin Wahdat recalls thinking, was over. A 30-year-old former gender-fairness adviser to the Afghan mining and agriculture ministries, she trekked for hours through wild forests on the Iranian border holding Aruin, her crying, 18-month-old son. Along with other family members — 14 of them — she crossed the Aegean Sea last week. She remembered a rush of fear as their raft took on water.
But she says she was finally feeling “safe” on the ferry from Lesbos to Athens, where her family had planned to quickly head north to Germany by car, bus and train. Then she caught something in English on a news broadcast in the ship’s lounge.
“It said they were no longer letting Afghans through,” she said in nearly flawless English. “I tugged at my brother’s shirt. ‘Did you hear that?’ I said. We were all in a state of shock.”
Stunned, they traveled from the port near Athens to the city’s now fetid Victoria Square, an impromptu squat for stranded migrants. There, smugglers in sunglasses coyly roamed the unwashed crowds. Elderly Greek women generously handed out toilet paper and candy. The family spotted aid workers distributing free food, and little Aruin mimicked the other migrants by getting in line and holding out his hand.
Wahdat didn’t know whether to “laugh or cry.”
“He is learning how to beg,” she said.
More than 30,000 migrants are stuck in Greece even as an average of 1,800 more land each day. Wahdat, like many, is in limbo and facing bad choices. She and her family have 20 days left on their entry visa. With the way ahead blocked, their only options are hiring smugglers (too dangerous, she says), applying for asylum in impoverished Greece (a crapshoot, with no financial support) or going back home.
But right now, it’s time to regroup. They rented decent rooms in a nearby Athens hotel and settled in. Aruin fussed in her arms while her young nephews played a game on her iPad. It’s a little dose of luxury, she said, before they head to the migrant camps.
The International Organization for Migration has started encouraging Afghans stuck in Greece to consider going home. They are offering 400 euros ($436) and a plane ticket. But Wahdat says she won’t return to a nation slipping back into violence and chaos, where her life, as a highly educated woman who fiercely defended equal rights, was threatened. To get this far, she sold her wedding jewelry. She gave up the family apartment. Sold the furniture and the family car. “Even if we could go back, we have nothing left to go back to,” she said.
Wahdat’s husband had taken the same route to Germany three months earlier, before the border closed to Afghans. But Germany is now making it harder for asylum seekers to bring in close relatives. After the extended family had talked it over, they decided to make a break for it.
But now they’re stuck. “We don’t know what will become of us here. It’s too much to think about right now,” she said. “We haven’t had time to process it.”
Back in the Diavata migrant camp on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, Yousof, the Afghan professor, is sure there has been a big mistake.
In a sea of well-worn T-shirts and bodies caked with sweat on a warm afternoon, he is pristine. The blue stitching on his Oxford shirt pokes through the collar of a black-and-blue checkered sweater. He smells freshly laundered.
“I don’t belong here,” he says, without a hint of arrogance. Rather, it’s confusion in his voice. He scrolls on his iPhone, showing a foreign journalist his recent invitation to a major business conference in Paris. He produces his ID card as a professor at Maiwand, an Afghan university. “I know they say we cannot cross. But they need to listen to my story. Please listen to my story. No one will listen.”
“I was a candidate for parliament,” he said. “The Taliban, they threatened me. They say I am an agent of the Americans. I had to leave. I need protection. I need to go to Germany.”
Like so many other migrants barred from crossing, he is sure the closure is temporary. An aid worker standing nearby is not so optimistic. “They will be here for weeks, months,” the aid worker said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But I don’t think they will get across. I don’t think the border will reopen for most of these people.”
Afghans are in a particular jam. They account for a third of all migrant flows. But their acceptance rate as refugees in Europe stands at roughly 70 percent. Late last month, that number was deemed sufficiently low enough by Balkan nations to bar their transit.
Yet it is also too low for them to take part in the only other chance of moving forward — a long-shot European program that Syrians and Iraqis can apply for in Greece to be safely relocated to wealthier parts of the continent.
But Yousof knows the border will reopen.
It has to.
“Of course, yes, it will,” he said, speaking softly, gently, as if to reassure himself. “They will start letting Afghans through again soon. I am sure of it. I think it is just because they have so many people now, you know. But they will not leave us here. I am not angry. I will wait.”
Toward the front of the camp, a group of chain-smoking Afghan males by a food truck debated their dwindling options. Ziaolhag Qamarzadah, a slight 16-year-old with a big dream of a new life as “a professional” in Germany, cut through the quarreling with a rant in the English he studied so hard to learn in his home city of Herat.
“Why? I do not understand. Why Syrians and Iraqis are only allowed to cross? Afghanistan has been at war for as long as I have been alive! Longer! You think people are not dying there? They are! Why not us?” he said. “We need protection also.”
To prepare for his new life, he enrolled in a German-language class last year in Afghanistan. “Guten Morgen!” he later says, beaming, throwing out his favorite German phrase, “Good morning.” He knows that in Germany, refugees are still getting money, housing, help. “I love Angela Merkel,” he said, referring to the German chancellor. “She gave us hope.”
And there’s no way, he says, he is going to let his German dream die because a few Balkan politicians decided to close the border. Not now that he is so close. His parents, he said, were farmers. That won’t be his fate. “I do not want a trade. I want to be professional. A doctor. A lawyer. I know that Germany will help me.”
But how will he get there?
He has run out of money. In phone texts, he is begging his parents in Afghanistan to wire cash so he can pay a smuggler. He needs $2,500. That’s the only way he thinks he can get through now.
Did he hear about the smuggled migrants found dead in Austria last year in the back of a refrigerated truck?
“Yes, yes,” he said. “My parents don’t want me to do it. They are afraid for me if I hire the smugglers. I am only 16, they say. But I have been through worse than Macedonia. I am going to go. I will not stay here. There is nothing for me in Greece. It’s better I die on the road.”
“Mr. Mehdi?” calls a clerk at the busy headquarters of the International Organization for Migration in Athens. This is the place of last resort. It’s where a migrant comes when he is ready to give up the European dream and go home.
A handsome young man in an electric-blue-and-orange New York Mets shirt stands up. He signs his name on a dotted line. The clerk hands him a laminated boarding pass. A one-way ticket back to Tehran.
There was a time when Iranians like Mehdi Mohammadi, a 28-year-old construction worker, were making it to Europe. Last year, he said, Merkel’s famous promise to keep Germany’s doors open to refugees was viewed as a golden opportunity for people like him. The economic migrants came in droves. Although untold thousands of them now face deportation procedures in nations across Europe, many others got in and are fighting to stay.
As do many economic migrants, he also claimed vague persecution at home. He is not a Christian, Mehdi says, but he is interested in the faith and wants to know more. “And we are not free to choose our religion in Iran,” he said. But a lot of the world is unpleasant, and that doesn’t mean Europe can take in everyone who wants to come.
He sold his prize possession — a green, Iranian-made car — to pay the smuggler fees. And he freely admits his primary motive.
“I came to find a job,” he said. “I wanted a better life.”
Although the land route through the Balkans closed to Iranians last November, he had a plan. He would pretend to be an Afghan. His language — Farsi — was close enough to pass. He paid forgers to cross out “Iran” on his Greek police papers and write in “Afghanistan.”
But when he made it to the border last week, he heard that even Afghans were being barred. He had already spent 30 days in Greece when he decided enough was enough. Other Iranians who have been there even longer, he said, told him the harsh reality of trying to stay.
“You sleep in the parks, you go to the soup kitchen for meals,” he said through an interpreter. “I even tried to get a job. I offered to work a full day for 10 euros. But there isn’t any work. This is a destroyed place. The Greeks don’t even have jobs.”
“If I have to starve,” he said. “I’ll starve at home.”
Elinda Labropoulou contributed to this report.